NavAlt Spreading Ripples of Eco-friendliness

Thiruvananthapuram: Lufthansa’s Runway To Success Season 4 in association with TiE (The Indus Entrepreneur) to find India’s most innovative startups and SMEs is in full swing, and of the 21 finalists shortlisted from over 50,000 applications that poured in from across India, is a passionate boat maker from Kerala.

Destination Kerala met Sandith Thandasherry, MD and CEO, NavAlt Solar & Electric Boats (navaltboats.com), at his modest office in Kalamassery. After doing Naval Architecture from IIT Chennai and MBA from INSEAD, why would anyone come back to Kerala? Let alone start an enterprise. Sandith is a suave rebel. That’s why.

“We are in the business of making marine transport more efficient. Using solar energy, we had experimented with a small passenger boat which went on to enter the Limca Book of Records as the ‘fastest solar boat’. Another experiment in the fishing sector taught us the importance of complete redesign from scratch. These led us to a very attractive market – passenger ferries. Today, we are building India’s first solar ferry – a 75-seat passenger boat for the Kerala Government. It is the size of four buses. And it will also be the world’s cheapest in terms of cost per passenger. In another couple of months, it will be launched. And once it is done, we do not see any reason why diesel ferries should be bought at all.” That’s him in the Lufthansa contest video arguing his case. No wonder he has garnered the highest number of votes in the Viewers’ Choice Awards category (votes as on date of filing this story; voting is open till July 31).

NavAlt’s solar technology can be a boon to the fragile ecology of Kerala’s inland waterways, for years contaminated by the noise and effluents from diesel-powered ferries and houseboats. It will work out cheaper too in the long run.

The 75-seater ferry will launch service in August this year. Kerala State Water Transport Department plans to operate the boat in the 2.5 km-long Vaikom-Thavanakkadavu route. The Rs. 1.75-crore boat which is 20 m long and 7 m wide with a maximum cruising speed of 7.5 knots is being given finishing touches at the Aroor (Alappuzha) yard of NavAlt, a joint venture between Sandith’s Navgathi Marine Design and Constructions Pvt. Ltd. and two French companies, Alternative Energies (AltEn) and EVE Systems. AltEn is the largest builder of solar ferries in the world. AltEn works closely with EVE Systems, an expert in battery management systems.

Let us take the case of a 75-passenger ferry. The conventional ferry (steel or wood) costs about Rs. 1 crore while a composite conventional ferry costs Rs. 1.5 crore. A solar ferry costs Rs. 3 crore. but thanks to the generous subsidy from Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, it comes down to Rs. 2 crore. Adds Sandith, “The fuel bill is Rs. 20-25 lakh per year for the conventional ferry if operated 12-14 hours daily. The solar ferry needs 40 units for night charging of batteries which runs up a power bill of Rs. 1.4 lakh a year. Batteries have to be replaced every six years and will cost Rs. 30 lakh. So a running cost of Rs. 6.4 lakh per year if you apportion battery cost across six years. A solar ferry has a shelf life of 25 years and a comparative savings of Rs. 20 lakh per year in operational cost. Remember, battery prices are coming down and diesel prices are climbing.”

But the going was never easy, admits Sandith frankly, in spite of premium education and prior experience building 25 boats in South Korea. A lot of what he says is punctuated with ‘in hindsight’. “We learned a lot from our mistakes. We lost pots of money in the Maharashtra Tourism house boat project where we built four vessels as per IRS (Indian Registry of Shipping) classification. There was only us in the country capable and willing to build a boat as per their stringent classification norms which emphasise durability, safety and sustainability. After that, we got an order to do three high-speed ambulance boats for Maharashtra Department of Health which we delivered in June. These ply on the Sardar Sarovar Dam waters. Our key learning from these early projects resulted in the strengthening of our purchase and financial control functions.”

After a few initial projects, the leadership of NavAlt realised that solar-powered cruise vessels (small boats used by hotels/resorts or for pleasure rides by tourists and where daily utilisation is low), is not the market they should focus on as financial break even takes time for the customers. Large passenger ferries running on solar (which are operated daily for longer hours become financially viable in less than two years) is where the market is and only NavAlt has the expertise to deliver these in India.

“There is a lot of design innovation that goes into a solar ferry and this is our core competence along with its manufacturing. Hull design should be different; lighter materials should be used. Propeller has to be more efficient. Power requirements should be low, or else speed is impacted,” says Sandith. We were very weak in battery management system and propulsion train, and that is where AltEn and EVE Systems brought in their expertise.

Navgathi does business of about Rs. 5 crore a year of which Rs. 1.5 crore comes from its high margin services business. “Performance Analysis of 500-plus ships for Mediterranean Shipping Company, Cyprus is being delivered by us,” informs Sandith. The company has now productised this service suite and will commercially launch it soon as X-Ship for other large fleet owners. They are also exploring offering this service to cruise line operators with large inventory of vessels.

“We are doing five rescue boats for Kerala Government. We are also holding discussions with Kochi Metro Rail Corporation for building solar ferries as part of the integrated water transport project they are championing. This is a big opportunity for us. A project like this can transform Kochi and also showcase how development and sustainability can go hand-in-hand,” says Sandith.

NavAlt internally manages the design and the core technology that goes with it as well as materials. Only labour is outsourced though senior craftsmen are their own and they oversee every project irrespective of where the manufacturing is located. “We do distributed manufacturing as it is very local. Transporting the end product by road is very difficult and often impossible because of the size.”

At the Maritime India Summit in Mumbai last April, Sandith pushed his way through and caught up with Piyush Goyal, the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy. In less than a minute the Vaikom solar ferry project was showcased. An impressed minister opened up a discussion for five solar ferries in Varanasi, plying the Holy Ganges.

‘‘Boat building is my passion. At IIT, my specialisation was focussed on leveraging solar energy in water transportation. I always wanted to own a yard. Now we have one in Kodungaloor and two leased sites in Aroor and Kevdia (Gujarat).”

NavAlt is bullish about India sub-continent, including Maldives and Sri Lanka, and South East Asia as markets for solar-powered passenger ferries. With increased awareness around eco-sensitivity and responsible development, investments in green transportation is taking sustainability in a wholly new direction or Navgathi, as they say in Sanskrit.